Wednesday, February 12, 2014


This piece is dedicated to the memory of Milwaukee's own Tom Laughlin who died in December of cancer at age 82.  He wrote, directed and starred in "Billy Jack" and it's subsequent films, and proved that you could head out west with little more than a belief system and launch a franchise. 

This one is a pure classic in almost every sense of the Late Night word. In the later 70's and early 80's this one was constantly being aired on UHF, VHF, monthly pay, and some sporadic signals being picked up from other solar systems. I saw it many times, one because I was so heavily exposed to it, between repeat broadcasts, and two because my siblings dug it so much. 

But why did I love it so much in my pre-adolescent mind? It wasn't the political messaging, which was hamfisted, because I wasn't ready for that yet. It wasn't the special effects, because there were none. It wasn't completely the martial arts scenes, though that helped. 

It was the bullying.

As a kid I attended several elementary schools, one parochial, and it seemed like someone was always geared up to knock me off whatever good mood I may have been fortunate enough to wake up in that day. It got to the point of ridiculousness, and made me not want to go to school some days. Now I know being bullied is nothing new to many, but maybe that's why "Billy Jack" was so big with a lot of folks, not just the political views subscribed to by "dirty hippies" that were so much of the film's focus.

Billy Jack was the voice of pent up outrage at those who feel they are in control, and have to force that fact down the throats of everybody else. Tom Laughlin played Billy as a half-breed green beret Vietnam vet who wanders his Arizona locales becoming one with various natures, and protected the put-upon refugees from everyday life that comprise the student body of the "Freedom School", which is operated by Billy's friend, Jean. A local land baron, Posner, rapes the natural resources of the countryside for profit, while his spoiled rich son rapes  the women of "Freedom School". It's a recipe for disaster.

It's Billy as vigilante that was the selling point for me. For a character that has the ultimate goal of peace for all mankind however, he does spend more than enough time whipping ass. As a bullied kid, that appealed to me. I was sold the moment Billy lands that vicious reverse crescent kick (terminology gleaned myself from two years of Tae Kwon Do study) to the smirking jowl of Mr. Posner, and leaves him laying in the grass of the town square, an embarassed, beaten (and fat) soul.

The film however lingers far too much on the school and it's inhabitants, and those sequences can seem to drag on forever.  Despite the presence of a young Howard Hesseman (looking a lot like Foghat's "Lonesome Dave" Peverett,  It doesn't help the story. "Billy Jack" himself as a character wasn't what it could have been, either. He could have been more a sledgehammer than a ball peen variety.  I'm not saying Laughlin had to engage in a kung fu battle every 8 minutes, but the run time overall could have been trimmed to streamline the film into a more flowing narrative, giving it a brisker pace. The characterizations are there, but it seems like experimentation at times. 

Nevertheless, a legend was born with the unexpected box office success and public endearment for the character, and there is a heavy nostalgia factor in it for me, as it is a leader in the MISULF (Movies I Stayed Up Late For) lexicon. It makes the Late Night Hall of fame. It's many flaws aside, I still have warm feelings for "Billy Jack".
Thanks to my sister Linda, for staying up with me to watch it.

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